Our Possible Lives, God Help Us

Last week was the weirdest. First, the Boston bombings. Then I spent the weekend at a Southern Literature festival. I took a break from writing because I was contemplating the craft. I have a hard time overlapping creation and editing. I am going to attempt to write every day this week to compensate.

The lit festival was incredibly fulfilling, but extremely taxing. Being around so many writers for three days talking about the craft and about the cultural work of literature is the thing of my dreams… and of my nightmares. Anyone who has ever taken part in any academic gathering understands: Part of me craves the intellectual arguments over the meaning relayed by a three-beat accentual verse in a poem. I am invested in the distinction between novellas and novellettes. I want to discuss the necessary tension of internal rhyme, dammit!

At the same time, I hate it. I hate it all. I am acutely aware of the privilege I have in partaking in discussions on poetry instead of, say, being fearful for my life while they hunt down a bomber in my neighborhood. In the moments of absurd attention to literary detail, I have to remind myself of the larger goal of literature: to survive. Probably the most impactful session I went to this weekend was a panel discussion entitled “How Literature Saves Us.” In the academic world, we shy away from the personal, the spiritual, the transcendent. We talk about literature at arm’s length.

But we need reminding that stories are all we’ve got in this world.

Dorothy Allison served on the panel and was incredibly insightful. If you’ve never read anything by her, pick up her memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. I say with no hesitation – it will change your life. When it was her turn to speak, Dorothy talked about despair. About deep, hollow sadness. About a desperation for meaning and a crushing inability to find it. She talked about weeping and heartbreak and being empty.

And she said we escape all of this “for as long as a story can remain in our minds.” Coincidentally, I wrote about escapism in my last post, but I needed to hear the urgency with which Dorothy spoke of stories. Every one of us remembers some week we survived because of the hopeful plot line we – maybe unconsciously – had imagined for our life.

That’s what gets us through the worst days. When we read stories we are imagining our possible stories. Our possible lives. As we read we stretch ourselves to encompass worlds upon worlds.

At one point during the panel, someone lamented, “I wish the Boston bombers had been given the right book. Had someone who cared enough to mail a story and say, ‘Look what I found for you.'”

Incidentally, April is National Poetry Month and to celebrate several publishers are offering Buy One, Give One promotions. For every book you purchase, certain publishers will send a free second book to someone of your choosing who – preferably – doesn’t usually read poetry.

Find a story. Give it to someone who needs it.

I know I can always use more fodder for building my dreams.

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